In typical Coetzee style, The Life and Times of Michael K considers the inhumanity of war, the State, and the State at war while simultaneously peering into the toll exacted upon the littlest individuals caught in the midst of such things. Michael K is a simple man with no family but his elderly mother and a birth defect that leaves his face as quick fodder for the jackals of society. Stuck in the midst of a civil war that makes little if any sense to him (waged “so that minorities will have a say in their destinies” as all war waged by liberalism claims, the poignancy of this war being its setting in apartheid era South Africa) the mildly clever yet thoroughly simplistic Michael K constructs a cart to push his increasingly ill mother in as they flee the building anarchy of war-torn Cape Town for her childhood farm in the distant Prince Albert. Trapped by curfews and a bureaucratic failure to receive the necessary travel permits the two embark on a desperate journey which soon sees his mother die in the sterile environ of a random hospital where her corpse is summarily cremated and the ash’s given to Michael with the heartless indifference of mechanized modern life. With the only love and care he has ever known now gone, Michael continues his journey until he finally finds what would seem to be the old family farm, long since abandoned and isolated on the outskirts of the town. Here, Michael begins a period- it’s never clear how long but as his pumpkin patch ripens and the season’s change we can think several months, if not a year or more- of isolation and subsistence that proves him to be far more intelligent and capable than anyone, even the author perhaps, had thought him to be. Michael is rightfully weary of being found, as it’s not his land, not the town he’s supposed to be in, and he has no job: each “crime” in themselves would land him in a work camp perhaps much like the one he was shuffled to when he was caught on the road earlier in the story.
It is on the farm that Michael wages war with human nature itself, and in a way comes out the victor. He builds himself a feeble shelter dug into the ground, he plants a small garden from seeds and tools stolen from the farmhouse (but he forgoes taking anything of luxury from the house, or using the house in general- its desolation a roadside deterrent against those who enforce the laws of wartime living). Michael lives alone and meekly and spends hours, whole days in fact, asleep waiting for his harvest; too bored or simply unable to find purpose in doing anything otherwise. He becomes the man free from all of society and in his silent liberation becomes what war creates: starvation and rot, a mere skeleton of a man. He was raised as an idiot, but it is in his isolation that he grows truly ignorant and stupid: nomadic guerilla forces (the rebellion in the civil war, we assume) pass through and he can’t figure if they’re hunters or soldiers or even the owners of the farm; the entire logic of the war and the factions and the reasoning of the State become lost entirely not only from his comprehension, but from his imagination. He cannot fathom any life but the simple and pure one he has created; though he starves, he cannot eat except that which he grew himself. Though alone, he feels little but fear and discontent at the sight of human life.
When soldiers, tracking the guerilla forces which had recently passed through, discover Michael K and his encampment they are certain he is an enemy combatant. He is brought to a labor camp where he is charged not with a crime, not kept under lock and key but instead, as it’s explained to him, he is penned-up for the crime of being homeless, jobless, and poor. He’s “free to go” but if found on the streets with no officially recognized purpose he will be arrested for not having the proper papers in order. And it is just this that becomes of him. Sick of the grotesqueness of the camp- the slightest of welfare given to the inhabitants there not because any one feels responsible for their lives, but because no one wants to feel responsible for their deaths, another jab at the liberal State which takes no responsibility for creating the conditions of the poor’s suffering but doles out instead the most meager of charity and says “see how great we treat you.” It is at this point that Michael K is picked up again, and taken to a makeshift prison camp back in Cape Town.
Also in typical Coetzee style, the voice of the narrator flips and reverses between sections of the book, with a lengthy part one reading a third person account of the events of Michael K’s life from an idiot who comes to live literally under the stairs with his mother to their improbable journey out of the city to his mother’s death to his arrival in the promised land of rural Prince Albert and his isolation and subsistence on an abandoned farm to his capture and internment in work camps to his return to Cape Town and imprisonment there; part two picking up as a first person account from the eyes of a male nurse at the “soft prisoner” camp built in a former racetrack where he tries to convince his superiors that Michael (“Michaels” they believe his name is) is too old and frail and feeble minded to be an enemy combatant- and it’s true, after the trials of his solitude on the farm and subsequent stint at the work camp Michael is left hardly of this world at all; “He is locked up as an insurgent, but he barely knows there is a war on” the nurse muses. The quick final part returns to the third person description of Michael’s final resting place, in the ruins of his former neighborhood which has been ravaged by the chaos of war. Coetzee’s penchant for switching narrators throughout his works is a simple but incredible trick of perspective that keeps the reader from sitting too comfortable with the material; it is, after all, a tale of loss and war and meager means and humility and personal salvation in the midst of humanity’s most horrific possibilities.
As the tale concludes, it is the final perseverance of the human spirit over the very brutality that we make for ourselves that Coetzee leaves us with:
And if the old man climbed out of the cart and stretched himself (things were gathering pace now) and looked at where the pump had been that the soldiers had blown up so that nothing should be left standing, and complained, saying, ‘What are we going to do about water?,’ he, Michael K, would produce a teaspoon from his pocket, a teaspoon and a long roll of string. He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.